One Woman Against the Crown: Elizabeth Lilburne Rides to the Rescue
Updated: Mar 30
One of the most famous and seemingly unique episodes in Oxford’s history is Queen Matilda’s daring escape from the siege of 1142, in which she allegedly crossed the frozen Thames on foot wearing a white dress as camouflage. Yet almost exactly five hundred years later, another woman also made a dangerous midwinter journey in order to affect getaway from Oxford Castle during a civil war. That woman was Elizabeth Lilburne, and although her story evidently shares many similarities with her better-known predecessor’s, one important difference remains: where Matilda was fighting to claim a throne, Elizabeth was fighting to break one.
Her journey occurred during Oxford’s brief spell as England’s capital, which had begun rather by accident. Having fled London after a disastrous falling-out with Parliament in 1642, King Charles I hoped to crush the rebels quickly and return to the nation’s traditional seat of power. His march on the metropolis fizzled out in the suburbs, however, and the Royalist armies ending up falling back on Oxford, which was a convenient nearby base and firmly under his control. The city would end up housing his majesty’s government for the next four years, as the rebellion dragged on and turned into what would later be known as the First English Civil War. In the meantime, the Cavaliers had little to show for their abortive initial campaign apart from a handful of prisoners captured during the Battle of Brentford. These included a certain Captain John Lilburne.